Today’s top-performing travel agents recognize that the key to lasting success in the travel industry is specialization. All of the travel agents whose success stories and viewpoints you will read have made it a point to sell India as at least one of their specialties. While some have decades of first-hand experience with the destination, others have built successful businesses without having ever visited. What they all have in common is a strong interest in selling the subcontinent and successful methodologies for doing so. Whether you have lived in India, traveled extensively, visited just once or merely dreamed of selling travel to the land of tigers and pink palaces, what follows is a practical guide to capitalizing on this remarkable destination, compiled from your experience and told from your perspective.
“Of all my travels around the world, I would highly recommend India,” says Mimi Campbell, a travel agent with Santa Barbara Travel Bureau (www.sbtravel.com). Mimi has been to India only once, but that was enough for her to come away with a true appreciation for its vibrancy and the warmth of its people. “No matter what,” she says, “you are going to have an adventure and see and experience the real culture.” Campbell believes that India is a place for any traveler “who wants to see something out of his comfort zone and out of this world,” noting that her clients come back blown away, with stories of people who fed and cared for them, of spiritual awakenings and desires manifested as if by serendipity. “You are craving a mango lassi, and you turn around and there in front of you someone is handing you a mango lassi!”
Campbell tells her clients: “India is high vibration. You need to take it slowly and relax, take it all in, allow yourself to be intimately impressed by this different sign of life.” Expect that not everything will go as planned, but know that this unpredictability and the good fortune that often follows is what “will ultimately be the thing that you remember most.”
The first critical step is research, familiarizing yourself with India’s “must-see” destinations and routes. Supinder Singh, President of Palace Tours (www.palacetours.com), has some advice for travel agents. He emphasizes theme travel—especially for repeat travelers—and unique experiences within the destination routes. Singh summarized the most popular travel themes, routes and experiences as follows:
Destination routes include The Golden Triangle (Delhi – Jaipur – Agra), Colors of Rajasthan (Delhi – Jaipur – Udaipur – Jaisalmer – Agra), Adventures in the North-west Himalayas (Delhi – Shimla – Leh / Ladakh), Glimpse of God’s Own Country (Kerala), One State Many Worlds (Karnataka from Bangalore), Untouched Northeast (Calcutta – Darjeeling), The land of Five Rivers (Punjab), and City to Beach Escapes (Mumbai – Goa).
On this subject, India specialist, chef, food stylist and American Express travel agent Subrato Bhattacharaya (www.subrato.com), emphasizes the importance of choosing an appropriate trip length for the desired route. He recommends that first timers going to the Golden Triangle, for example, spend seven to ten days.
Theme routes include religious and cultural pilgrimages, spa and Ayurveda (specifically in the Himalayas in the north and Kerala in the south), cuisine and culinary experiences, wildlife and tiger safaris, trekking and adventure, heritage and historical routes, and train travel. To date, India has the largest train network in Asia, including exquisite luxury trains such as the Palace on Wheels (www.palaceonwheels.net).
Some of the more unique experiences to be found in India include: textile block printing, Kerala backwaters cruising, visiting a local tribal village, shopping the Mumbai Thieves Market, dodging through the Kokata Mallick Ghat Wholesale Flower Market, jungle patrolling in South India, indulging in an Ayurvedic massage, taking a cooking lesson in a small village and attending an Indian wedding in your own made-to-measure traditional dress.
Establish Local Connections
In arranging a trip to India for a client, Mimi Campbell uses suppliers who she feels really know the area and will take clients behind the scenes. She likes suppliers who have offices both in India and abroad, not necessarily in the U.S., but at least in the UK or Australia. This way, she feels that they have both a cultural understanding of India and a grasp of her clients’ specific needs.
One popular niche theme that came up frequently for India was its phenomenal cuisine. Susan Geringer, owner of Geringer Global Travel (www.geringerglobaltravel.com) in Westport, CT, is taking advantage of the James Beard award-winning chef, Prasad Chirnomula, in her own affluent community. Geringer has created a luxury gastronomy tour of North and South India with Prasad as an on-tour expert. She also is making a strong effort to educate herself first-hand and has visited the subcontinent five times since January 2010 alone.
Tara Gupta, President of San Francisco-based India By Design (http://india-by-design.com), grew up in India and sells pretty much all of the subcontinent as well as Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. She sells direct to the public but also makes arrangements for other agents. Gupta designs her own itineraries based upon the needs of the client. She tries to make sure each has a personal experience, which she likes to do by hooking them up with her own family and friends throughout their stay. For example, on the first evening of the Diwali festival, her clients will go to a local’s home and “experience the festival as if they were going to somebody’s home for Christmas.” For the colorful festival of Holi (March 20, 2011 and March 8, 2012), she introduced a client to her cousin who works for a drama school that graduates the big Bollywood film stars. “You should have heard him talking about it!” Gupta exclaims. “He joined the students as they painted themselves in red, yellow, and green and exchanged hugs and sweets just like the rest of them.”
Find Your Niche and Tap Your Community
Mindy Rozenberg, a home-based New Jersey agent affiliated with New York City-based Pisa Brother’s Travel (www.pisabrothers.com), has been educating herself on India without having actually visited the country. She is a member of the India Ahoy agent specialist network, from which she receives enough support that she is able to sell India without personal experience. Recently, a new client was referred to her through her synagogue. This lead included two couples who would be attending a wedding in India. Rozenberg arranged accommodations, pre-and-post tour packages in Delhi and a seven-night Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (www.royalrajasthanonwheels.com) luxury train ride. Rozenberg is also now selling various destinations at supplier supported cooking demonstrations that she organizes at Williams Sonoma.
One of Tara Gupta’s sub-specialties is student and family travel to India, utilizing her contacts with both local Indian boarding schools and private schools in the USA. She has arranged trips where American kids and their parents and/or teachers can stay in the Indian boarding schools, play with the local children, and see how a boarding school works in India. These trips usually involve a giving-back service component that she also arranges.
Gupta is often invited by her clients to speak in their communities at libraries or town centers, where she also promotes general leisure travel, especially to major events, such as the Pushkar Fair in November (Nov. 2-11, 2011) and the Diwali Festival in October (5 days from Oct. 26, 2011).
Additionally, Gupta is also promoting Ayurveda spa experiences, acquiring customers by organizing events and promotions with day spas in her community.
Kate DeLosso, CTC, DS, owner of Collectible Tours (www.collectibletours.com) in Chadds Ford, PA, specializes in “motherland” travel arrangements for families who have adopted children from Asia, including India, from which children have been adopted now for 25 years. DeLosso herself has three adopted children from the Asia Pacific rim, and one daughter has reconnected with her birth sister. The families and their adoptee children that make up her client base are very interested in returning to their children’s or their homeland, so that they can discover their heritage. Additionally, she served on the board of directors of an adoption agency for years, which has allowed her connections with social service agencies, adoption agencies and orphanages for arranging complicated FITs for clients these special clients.
Joe and Emma Thomas, originally from Mumbai, are the owners of Your Happy Holidays (www.yourhappyholidays.com). They have been selling India for 35 years, 25 of which have been from their agency in Queens, NY. They welcome questions from other travels agents, who they say always come with a long list. Today they specialize in multi-religion tours, as many inter-religious and political groups are interested in studying how India is such a peaceful nation, accepting of Sikhs, Muslim, Hindus, Buddhists, Janes, Jews, and Christians alike. They also have begun to sell medical tourism to India (www.health-in-india.com), and Joe has presented and exhibited at several medical tourism conferences.
Susan Geringer has been promoting her culinary tour through public relations efforts and has even begun writing a column on India travel for the popular travel website Farewell Travels. Geringer has organized a cocktail party “mixer” at Chef Prasad’s Westport restaurant, Thali (one of several in his gourmet dining empire), and has been promoting the tour through Thali’s network and her own her synagogue and consumer and trade travel events.
Leverage Your Specialized Knowledge
Tara Gupta also specializes in honeymoons and destination weddings in India. “I attend lots of bridal fairs where I am the only one selling India, and I get a lot of interest,” she says. “India is a great honeymoon destination.”
Kate DeLosso uses her personal knowledge of adoption and heritage travel to get speaking engagements at adoption conferences, which is one place where she attracts clients. At one conference, she met an adoptee in his eighties, although so far, her oldest adoptee client has been 52. DeLosso also writes articles for and sends out announcements to adoption related magazines (there are two such publications in the U.S.), and to agencies that work with Indian adopted families, so that they know about her and the services she provides. From experience, DeLosso knows that families with kids are different. They need more hands-on cultural activities, such as playing local games or even just soccer with the Indian children, partaking in kids’ level cooking classes and language lessons or even practicing a bit of written Hindi. And the experience must be age appropriate,” says DeLosso, adding, “Sixteen-year-old girls like to shop.”
Start a Dialogue to Generate Leads
For Margie Jordan, CEO, CTA, DS of ASAP Travel (www.margiejordan.com) in Jacksonville, FL, India is a new destination, but she has “fallen in love.” Says Jordan, “There is so much culture, but there are a lot of challenges. The media has done a great job of telling them that they will get sick, and it’s not safe.” Jordan works hard to change people’s perceptions. One of her strategies has been to set up a Facebook page where both India-philes and skeptics can have a dialogue, and past travelers can share personal experiences to help change prospective client’s minds about India.
After attending a large outdoor Indian festival in Jacksonville, Margie discovered the breadth of Indian subculture in her own community. She started organizing dine-arounds at local Indian restaurants, with costs partially subsidized by suppliers. She gathers groups of 20-25 diners, who enjoy discounted meals along with lively conversations and presentations about India. Notes Jordan, “There is nothing like sitting there with someone who has just come back from India and had a fabulous time to encourage new clients to sign up.”
Personalize and Establish the Emotional Connection
Subrato Bhattacharaya recommends trying out some of India’s many heritage properties, boutique hotels, and upscale family-run home-stays to get in touch with the real people. He emphasizes eating only in good restaurants and hotels, and avoiding dubious street food. He cautions visitors against buying souvenirs from street vendors, as many of them are beholden to middlemen and “Thekaerdars” or landlords. Always buy from the government regulated shops to insure that the artisans are making decent wages and that children are encouraged to stay in school rather than run around the streets selling goods and crafts. Bhattacharaya spends a lot of time researching the honest and ethical artisan groups. He believes that the best thing that his clients can do is give back to the communities they visit in some way. He always makes arrangements for his clients to visit a school and bring pens and other small supplies for the teachers. “This creates a bond,” says Bhattacharaya. “They can’t forget each other.”
Like Bhattacharaya, Susan Geringer also recommends visiting artisan villages that are truly helping the community. Geringer recommends visiting Jaipur’s Neerja blue Pottery. This art, which was introduced into Jaipur in the 19th Century by Sawai Ram Singh II, had nearly died out in 1978 when it was discovered by Indian social worker Leela Bordia. Bordia is accredited with bringing blue pottery into the mainstream, where her company now employs thousands of Jaipur area craftspeople and their families, who make a living on its sale of over 300 products featuring over 1,000 useful mainstream designs. Her warehouse is more of a museum than a stockroom, with many one-of-a-kind pieces, each with its own story. Bordia’s mother actually worked for Mother Theresa, and this experience truly inspired her. Buying from Neerja International (www.neerjainternational.com) is one way to engage yourself in the culture of Jaipur and truly give back.
New Contemporary Festivals
In addition to the traditional festivals mentioned above, India is now becoming renowned for more contemporary events in the world of contemporary literature and art.
The Jaipur Literature Festival (http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org), held annually in January, is the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific and the largest free festival of literature in the world. It was founded in 2006 by William Dalrymple, author of several books on India, including Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India and Namita Gokhale, author of nine books, the first of which being Paro: Dreams of Passion, a satire of the Mumbai and Delhi elite classes, caused much uproar and put her on the literary map. According to Susan Geringer, Owner of Geringer Global Travel, who attended the festival this year, “For anyone who likes to read, it’s a must.” Presenters are not just from India. This year they included the award winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Turkish Nobel Literature laurite Orhan Pamuk, and South African-born literary critic and Nobel Literature prize winner John Maxwell Coetzee, who today resides in
Adelaide, South Australia.
The Indian Art Summit (www.indianartsummit.com) is India’s Modern and Contemporary Art Fair, featuring artists from India and all over the world. Held in New Delhi (January 19-22, 2012), this is the biggest event in the Indian art world, and it’s growing. In 2011, 84 national and international galleries exhibited, almost double the size of 2010, and nearly 50 percent of the works on exhibition sold.